The Record Collector: a short story

This short story is from ROLLING DOWN THE ROAD, by Dart Travis, (Follow the link) and Dart Travis is my fiction pseudonym. For years friends told me to send it to music magazines, but I never did. It’s the final story in the collection, many others of which touch on music. I had no plans to put fiction here, but it has a lot on shopping in charity shops, numbered records and the obsession of collecting.


The Record Collector

Last year

Steve flicked past yet another copy of the first Sky LP as he leafed glumly through the record albums in Oxfam. Listening to Sky and Sky 2 must be seriously bad for the health It had killed off one hell of a lot of people, judging by the fact that every charity shop in England used to have at least one copy of each. That was back when you still had a chance of finding reasonable albums in charity shops. The vinyl revival … even Sainsburys sells vinyl now … means that’s what’s left in charity shops nowadays is grubby, scuffed classical LPs, military bands and unlistenable budget stuff on Readers Digest or World Record Club labels. At least the reasonable stuff … and let’s be fair, Sky are reasonable … accumulates in the specialist books and music outlets.

Sky was expertly-played instrumental wallpaper for the masses in the eighties. Not that he’d ever listened through a copy. Fortunately for him it seemed, as he’d avoided the associated bad kharma which meant that Macmillan Cancer Charity Shops and British Heart Foundation shops had been full of the things. Piss-awful covers too. A background of clouds with big blobby S-K-Y letters filled with … well, let’s think. What would fit the name? Ah, yes, stars. You don’t often find albums worth having in charity shops, but you will find The Complete Works of Sky,  Tubular Bells and Tony Hancock’s Blood Donor (on a budget label) in most of them. Cliff Richard’s Private Collection and Wired for Sound must have killed off a few because they were multiple copies festering in cardboard boxes.   Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants was another charity shop regular, as was Neil Diamond’s Love at the Greek. Both must have been manufactured in large numbers, failed to sell, and been remaindered years ago. The worrying thing was that the mental health charities had far better rock albums in stock than the other charities. So maybe listening to the stuff didn’t do you much good. Come to think of it, they had better modern novels too.

So why did he bother to shuffle through these piles of Classics For Pleasure and Top of the Pops Volume 26 crap? He rarely bought anything. Since charity shops had latched onto the vinyl revival, the prices had become hilarious. A red Beatles double album, The Beatles 1962-1966, for sixty quid. He shook his head. Torn cover, coffee stains, and the vinyl was scratched, dull and looked as if it had been sandpapered. And it was a compilation issued years after they’d split up. Millions of them around.  Then a couple of years ago a 45 in a glass case by the counter. Mull of Kintyre, one of the best-selling singles ever, at £30. And no, not a rare version either. Lena Zavaroni’s LP in a Salisbury shop? £10. Any collectors shop would have consigned it to the skip.  They got volunteers to look albums up on the net, find the highest prices on eBay, then stick them on the cover. But the volunteers had never noticed that the prices were for mint condition copies in mint sleeves with a misprint on the label, and at the end of a daft bidding war. Or that specialist dealers put them in plastic sleeves with the price sticker affixed to the plastic outer sleeve, not to the original sleeve where it invariably peeled off a section of the prized artwork when you took it off.   The only thing in Oxfam’s favour was that it had proper wooden racks at waist level. In most charity shops, you had to crouch on the floor looking through cardboard boxes of LPs while the shoppers desperate for second hand blouses and skirts trampled all over you.

Then he stopped … shit. He always had a few specific albums in the back of his mind during these futile flicks through the record boxes. He’d never found any of them until … his hand shook a little. £44.99. The Rolling Stones #2. Last time he’d seen a copy at a Record Fair it had been sixty quid, so the price was reasonable enough. It was £200 mint in Rare Record Guide, not that anyone was likely to ever find a mint copy He turned it over, and glanced at all the Andrew Loog Oldham drivel printed on the back.  There’d been a story about that … Decca had had to withdraw the album after a couple of weeks and paste over exiting copies, then replace the text. What was it? Something about robbing a blind man to buy a copy.  Here it was … “If you don’t have bread, see that blind man knock him on the head’. Yes, An early copy then. Mono. He’d bought his the very day it came out in January 1965. He had been an early fan of The Rolling Stones, but had gone right off them somewhere between Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, but this was back when they were the real thing. January 1965 … the second year of the sixth form.

Rolling Stones albums were a CD disaster. Back in the sixties, their American label had generally squeezed three American albums out of two British ones, padded out with a couple of B-sides. So The Rolling Stones #2 had never been issued in America. They’d issued only the American versions of the Stones catalogue early on in the CD era.  When The Beatles had released their albums on CD, they’d released them as God had intended, in the British mono versions. The Stones had never done that. Even when they released them for the second and then the third time, only a few titles were done in both the British and American versions. And The Rolling Stones #2  hadn’t been one of them. Sure, you could assemble it on your iPod by pulling the songs off several different American albums, but the original did not exist on CD. Hence the high prices for the LP.

This album had a special aura to it. He had lost his copy. He could still see the three albums that had walked away together. The Eddie Cochran Memorial Album, Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing and … The Rolling Stones #2. He’d replaced the Dylan album almost immediately. And when it came out on CD he’d added that. The Cochran had taken far longer. In the seventies he’d bought various Eddie Cochran compilations, but had never managed to get every song. He couldn’t bring himself to shell out £60 to £100 for an original LP from a collector’s shop, but finally a French facsimile edition had appeared on CD.  But not The Rolling Stones #2.

Think back. He had loaned them to her a month before they split up. June 1966.  A month before the World Cup Final. He’d still been pining when England won that one. He chuckled. Writing to ask for his three albums back must have seemed churlish. The word nerd hadn’t even existed then. What an arsehole. Young, enthralled, heartbroken … but also so anxious to get his precious albums back. No wonder she’d never replied. He’d wheedled for them again in an unrequited Christmas card at the end of the year. No reply.

Steve slipped the vinyl out of the cover … not bad. Shiny black. Played a bit, but not destroyed. Must have been looked after. £44.99.  A lot. After all, he had all the tracks to assemble a home-made CD from … but the actual artefact was different … not that it was perfect. Someone had put a number sticker on the back cover. Fourteen. Those little square number stickers. They came with gold wire ‘Selecta’ LP racks (holds twenty LPs) from Woolworths. Each divider had a number under it and you had a set of numbers to lick and stick on the LPs. Fanatic orderliness. Not that you could see the numbers at the bottom when the records were in the rack. Number stickers were a moot issue with collectors. They defaced a record so it wasn’t “mint,” and they left two small dents on the bottom of the sleeve, but on the other hand the sort of obsessives who’d numbered their records, were the sort who had looked after them. He’d had one of the racks himself, and defaced his records with stickers just like this. Then a thought struck … just like this. Say that this was HIS actual record. No way … his had disappeared in on the south coast fifty years ago, and here he was in Oxfam in Bath.  The LP had been top of the charts for weeks back in 1965. There had to be hundreds of thousands of the things around. Why would it ever be there … but it was a nice coincidence.

It settled the question of purchase. At a normal second-hand record shop he would have offered forty quid safe in the knowledge of doing a deal, but that wasn’t possible in Oxfam. No, Oxfam meant the full £45 handed over and put the penny change in the collection tin for African orphans with AIDS and malaria. A story came into his head. Bono and U2 were playing a benefit in Dublin. Bono had stood by the mic clapping his hands slowly, ‘Every time I clap my hands a child in Africa dies …’ and a voice piped up from the audience ‘So stop fucking clapping then.’

He even felt slightly mean as he handed over the money … sixty quid was the going rate for the album in this sort of condition. But this was a very early one with the blind man text. It would be worth double at least. Maybe even more. Not that he’d ever sold an LP.

Shelves of LPs at home. He’d kept every one he’d ever owned … except for those three lost ones. So how many LPs had he bought before it? Obviously they were alphabetical not chronological nowadays. Chronological only worked when you had just a few, not hundreds. As soon as he got home, Steve leafed through. Another Side of Bob Dylan felt about the same time, so he slid it off the shelf. There was the identical little sticker on the back. Number twelve. Think … what would have been next? He could remember playing Everybody Needs Somebody To Love on bass guitar  … and learning the Rolling Stones version at the same time as he learned Parchman Farm and The Seventh Son … and they were both from  Mose Allison Sings. He definitely still had that LP. Black sleeve … Stateside label… it was tight in the shelf but slid out … number thirteen. Christmas money … it was coming back … his Christmas money had been enough for two LPs; Mose Allison Sings, which was bought as soon as the shops opened after the holiday … then keep the rest of the money for the impending Rolling Stones release. So … his copy must have been number fourteen.

The sleeve was in his hand. What were the chances of this being the fourteenth record purchase for someone else with the same Woolworths gold wire rack? It had to be … this was his actual copy. Thoughts of rings lost at sea and turning up twenty-five years later in a fish on your plate in a restaurant … that was more incredible. So why shouldn’t it be? That’s when the cold chill ran up his spine … so what was it doing in Oxfam? Sky, Sky 2, Tony Hancock … dead people’s records. Dead people’s books. Shudder. Dead people’s clothes.

Why? It could have been a house clearance after the funeral, but it could just as well have been Spring cleaning, someone finally moving the vinyl albums out a mere quarter of a century into the CD era. Or moving house and getting rid of stuff that hadn’t been touched in years. So did she live in Bath now? Or had she died in Bath?  No, Oxfam was good. Cancer charities, heart charities, the local hospice … you gave stuff to them when someone had died of the disease. Then there was the People’s Dispensary For Sick Animals – a donation there suggested the end of a sad and lonely life stuck with an incontinent cat. Oxfam? Charitable, internationalist, maybe a tad leftist … no, a tragic death wouldn’t have been it. And it could have been sold years ago, or given away, or lifted by a subsequent boyfriend … the route to Oxfam could have been tortuous. And Oxfam no doubt assembled the most collectable LPs into the best-placed shops, probably from a wide area. But it was in such good nick. It had survived fifty years.

He opened the lid of the record deck. He hated these twenty-first century hi-fidelity purist turntables. You had to lift off the platter and move a little belt to change the speed. What was the point of that? The last time he’d slipped this on a turntable it had been a Dansette with four speeds at the flick of a switch … 16 2/3, 33 1/3, 45 and 78. But switches impaired the sound according to the prat at the hi-fi shop. The needle, sorry stylus, wobbled its way into the groove. The hiss of surface noise made it sound as if it had spent its formative years on a Dansette, that’s for sure.

Everybody Needs Somebody to Love blared out. The album held no trace of the relationship. That had been soul, The Four Seasons’ Let’s Hang On, Manfred Mann’s Pretty Flamingo, waiting to see The Walker Brothers in concert. It was not one they’d ever played, not one they’d ever danced to. Just one he’d loaned her then because it was already an old favourite, music from the year before. The music itself stirred no memories of her. But if he hummed Pretty Flamingo or Let’s Hang On, he could instantly see her smiling up at him, short blue dress with white polka dots, piles of chestnut hair, blue eye shadow …

He’d only definitely seen her once, very briefly, since her sudden unexpected and short telephone call had cut off six months of feverish fumblings. That had been a couple of months afterwards at a party. He’d been in a semi-darkened room with his hand down the front of someone’s dress when she’d stumbled across his foot, glared at him in something like hatred … an emotion at least … and fled the party at once. He’d never found out why she’d chucked him. Months of intimate meals over a bottle of Lutomer Yugoslav Reisling, months of dancing too close in cellar clubs, months of wandering through the park, seeking a quiet enough park bench. Then … no warning … total finish. There had been a further disputed sighting a couple of years later. He’d just walked off the escalator from the underground onto Victoria station on his way back home from university. He could have sworn it was her. He’d almost walked right into her. He’d blurted her name out loud … a direct stare again, but just a puzzled polite ‘No, … sorry, I don’t know you,’ then she’d been on the down escalator. But she could always act brilliantly. He’d never been sure whether it was mistaken identity or acting. And it was a recognized syndrome, thinking you saw people you knew in airports and stations. It was something that happened to travellers who were trying to ground themselves with imagined familiar faces. He’d resisted the urge to follow … say it really was a complete stranger?

Then no news, not that he’d ever sought any. Around 1973 he’d bumped into an old friend of hers in Oxford Street and after a couple of minutes polite chat he’d made a tentative enquiry. She’d laughed and said she hadn’t seen her for years. The last time had been in Kensington Market around 1968, and she’d been selling incense and puffing on a large joint.

So, what did you do? A Google search produced the right name combinations, but he doubted that she was researching her family history from small town Arkansas, nor writing an academic paper on the vitamin levels in ostrich meat in Durban, nor teaching recorder in Newcastle, Australia. Anyway, the chances were that she’d got married and changed her name years ago. Friends Reunited? That had maiden names too. He typed in her school, but she’d always hated the place, and as expected, had never tried to establish contact with old classmates. Dead ends. Hopefully not a dead ending for her. He hunched over the computer screen, but after fifty years there was just no point, in spite of that dragging nagging fear.

Then the thought struck him. After finding the Rolling Stones #2 he’d stopped looking through the Oxfam rack. Shit!  What a horrible thought. Say that his Eddie Cochran Memorial Album had been in there too?